Category Archives: Objects

Photo of the day: the Wunmonije heads

 Photo of the day: the Wunmonije heads

The Wunmonije heads at the British Museum in 1948. Published in Drewal (H.J.) & Schildkrout (E.), Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, 2009: p. 4, fig. 2

In January 1938, two feet below the ground of the Wunmonije Compound in Ife, a cache of bronze heads was uncovered while a foundation for a house was being dug. It would become one of the most important chance finds in the history of African art. Unfortunately no photos of the excavations exist. Shown above are some of the heads unpacked at the British Museum, where the Ooni had sent them in 1948. It’s quite a remarkable scene to see such an important part of Nigeria’s art history placed arbitrary on that table.

The Wunmonije compound, then just behind the palace of the Ooni of Ife, formerly was located within the enclosing palace wall. While clearing away the topsoil the workmen had struck metal and further digging revealed a group of cast heads. Thirteen life-size heads and a half-lifesize half figure were unearthed. Soon after, the same site yielded additional finds of five more works: a life-size head, three smaller heads, and a torso. The identification and function of these heads remain uncertain. It remains a mystery why this cache was ever buried; possibly this hoard once formed part of a royal altar.

Most of the objects found in the Wunmonije Compound ended up in the National Museum of Ife, but a few pieces left Nigeria. One is now in the collections of the British Museum – the head far left on the above picture. It was purchased in Ife by Mr. Bates, then editor of the Nigerian Daily Times and was subsequently acquired by Sir (later Lord) Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery, acting on behalf of the National Art Collections Fund, which donated it to the British Museum in 1939. Two heads that were purchased by William Bascom (a research student from Northwestern University, Illiniois, who was based in Ife at the time) in 1938 were later returned to Nigeria as a gift in 1950 – a story documented in an article by Simon Ottenberg (Further Light on W.R. Bascom and the Ife Bronzes, in Africa, Vol. 64, No. 4, 1994: pp. 561-568).

 

 

Object of the day: a 19th century Mangbetu or Zande bark box from D.R. Congo

Museum Volkenkunde Leiden mangbetu zande bark box Object of the day: a 19th century Mangbetu or Zande bark box from D.R. Congo

Mangbetu or Zande bark box. Height: 44,5 cm. Image courtesy of the Collection Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden, The Netherlands (#2668-24).

The above bark box was collected by the Dutch explorer Juan Maria Schuver in South Sudan between 1881 and 1883. Unfortunately Schuver didn’t make any notes about this and the three other similar boxes (#2668-25, #2668-26 & #2668-27 – the last one being oval) he collected. We do know for certain that he himself never visited the Mangbetu and Zande region. Possibly he acquired these containers from Zande mercenaries in Sudan or on the market in Khartoum. The early collection date of this example makes it one of the oldest known Zande bark boxes. In the past, these were often described erroneously as honey containers or receptacles for ancestral relics. In fact, they were most often used for holding trinkets, clothing, charms and other personal treasures. Herbert Lang wrote in his field notes about a similar container: ‘A sort of box (nembandi) made of bark and two pieces of wood for a bottom and a cover. They are used to carry the smaller effects of men during voyages and also to store them away in their huts. Most of the objects stored are ornaments, charms, or clothing’. (note 591)

What is interesting about the bark box illustrated above, is the fact that it lacks figurative elements. Most examples in the literature include lids with carved heads on top. There is thus reason to believe that these boxes, like many other forms of Mangbetu and Zande household art, were undergoing changes during the turn of the century. As Schildkrout & Keim demonstrated in African reflections. Art in Northeastern Zaire (University of Washington Press, 1990), the European presence in the region greatly expanded the market for certain types of art. Many chiefs used art to win favor with colonial officials and this new patronage did have consequences for the local material culture. One was that it encouraged the development and spread of certain types of art already present in the region. Artists more and more produced the kinds of works that European and American visitors admired, preferably in the much-loved “Mangbetu style”: an elongated wrapped head and halo-like coiffure which depicted a distinctive turn-of-the-century fashion of upper-class Mangbetu women.

All these objects depicting a Mangbetu-style head were - and  unfortunately often still are - called “Mangbetu” no matter who produced it. In many instances works regarded by collectors and museums as most typically Mangbetu were in fact made by Barambo, Bangba, or Zande artists. The art known as Mangbetu was not the exclusive work of Mangbetu artists, but is rather an expression of the political and cultural preeminence of that group at the time it was created.

This Western influence thus transformed certain kinds of traditional objects: for the first time they became vehicles for anthropomorphic sculpture. Pottery is the prime example – sculpted heads were added to the rich inventory of existing shapes – but bark boxes too underwent a redesign. The above example shows the archetype for this type of object. Below another box with a wooden lid and (stool-like) base added. Next a classic example with the typical Mangbetu-style head. Lastly, a container representing a full figure – where the actual box still only makes up a small segment at the center. In a very short period of time – ca. 30 years – this object type thus was subject of a major adjustment due to external influences. The case of the Uele region is well documented thanks to the findings of the American Museum of Natural History’s Congo Expedition (1909-1915), and makes one wonder what happened in many other parts of the D.R. Congo.

 Object of the day: a 19th century Mangbetu or Zande bark box from D.R. Congo

Mangbetu or Zande bark box. Height: 36,2 cm. Gift of King Leopold to the AMNH in 1907. Image courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

Songo Dekvoi Mangbetu Zande bark box Brill Collection Sothebys 341x1024 Object of the day: a 19th century Mangbetu or Zande bark box from D.R. Congo

Mangbetu or Zande bark box. Height: 52,5 cm. Collection Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The base incised with the artits’s name “Songo Dekvoi”. Reportedly collected before 1911 in Rungu Village, Uele Region. Acquired at Sotheby’s, New York, “The William W.Brill Collection of African Art”, 17 November 2006. Lot Lot 115. (sold for $60.000). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Mangbetu bark box American Museum of Natural History Lang figure Object of the day: a 19th century Mangbetu or Zande bark box from D.R. Congo

Mangbetu bark box. Height: 33,2 cm. Collected before 1915 by Herbert Lang. Image courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History (#90.1/2221). Expedition field note: Naiso. Carved figure imitating a saluting messenger of white men, the exaggeration of the cartridge belt and the sexual portion is rather a hint at the behavior of these men. They always carry a cartridge belt and also an old muzzle loader. They are never provided with powder or cartridges, but as a rule they behave very arrogant in the absence of white men and often profit of the charms so easily offered by the Mangbetu women. These figures are considered simply funny. The Mangbetu have no idols, though they firmly believe in bad spirits on the road, in the forest, in case of death of any of their chiefs they change the site of their villages.

Object of the day: a Bamun head crest from Cameroon

tungunga Bamun de Vlaminck Ndam nji Mare Makoutam Object of the day: a Bamun head crest from Cameroon

This powerful sculpture is one of my favorite African art objects, I can look at it for hours. It can be attributed to a Bamum workshop in the Makutam region, which produced large scale headcrests, so-called tungunga. It’s talented sculptor found a striking balance between the circular volumes of the eyes, cheeks, and chin; placed below protruding arched brows and surmounted by a dramatically backswept bi-lobed headdress. To its benefit, the blown cheeks of this headcrest are smaller and more schematized than in other examples. The subtle curve of the neck lends the sculpture an additional striking dynamic.

This head crest was sold by Sotheby’s in 2007 for 1,608,000 USD (info). The owner, Saul Stanoff, had bought it at auction in Paris twenty years earlier for 65,000 USD (Loudmer, 2 July 1987, lot 176). Quite a markup ! The fact that the piece was once owned by Maurice de Vlaminck did of course play a role in this story.

Tungunga headcrests were danced in pairs of two and evoked the images of a deceased king and his wife. They were held on top of the head and affixed by a fiber construction hidden underneath a raffia frill. Tungungas were danced by the members of the nsoro, a secret society for warriors. Only those men who had killed an enemy in the field of battle could become members of this society. Tungunga dancers appeared only at funerals of important persons, namely of chiefs, members of the royal family, state ministers, and initiates of the nsoro. The bilobed bonnet of the Stanoff tungunga indicates the representation of a king.

Only a few other examples of this rare type of Cameroon art are known; the one below was collected by Henri Labouret and donated before 1934 to the Musée de l’Homme in Paris (now part of the Musée du quai Branly).

Tungunga Bamoun Labouret quai branly 962x1024 Object of the day: a Bamun head crest from Cameroon

Image courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly (71.1934.171.29).

UPDATE: Sotheby’s Heinrich Schweizer informed me that in his view this head crest in fact wasn’t made by Ndam nji Mare (as I had said earlier, quoting the Rietberg Museum’s Cameroon – Art and Kings). What is a work by Ndam nji Mare is the tungunga in the Malcolm collection (see below) which he discusses in his forthcoming book Visions of Grace: 100 African Masterpieces from the Collection of Daniel and Marian Malcolm (coming out in September). Schweizer believes there are at least three different carvers who made this type of head crest. They do look similar, but when handling them one can note many differences in the carving style (eyes, ears), technique (faceted carving vs. smooth surface), patina, wood, etc. Ndam nji Mare was carving a generation later and presumably a follower working in an earlier tradition. He is known by name as he was still active in the 1940s.

 Object of the day: a Bamun head crest from Cameroon

Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum

Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum 1 Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum

Dreaming about my next holiday, I reminded I still had to post some pictures of my previous field-trip. I had already discussed the African art on view at the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum (here), but still had to show their incredible ensemble of Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago.

They were collected during the winter of 1872-1873 by the then 20 year old French anthropologist Alphonse Pinart. He traveled the Kodiak archipelago by kayak, assembling the largest set of traditionally crafted Alutiiq ceremonial masks in the world; 87 in total. Pinart recognized both the artistic and cultural value of these unique pieces, collecting the names and songs associated with many. When he died in 1911, Pinart bequeathed the masks to the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum. You can discover 65 masks more in detail here.

Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum Pinart 1024x813 Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum

Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum 2 1024x495 Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum

Boulogne sur Mer Museum Pinart mask 1024x702 Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum

In 2008, the Alutiiq Museum and the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum partnered to create an exhibition of 34 masks from Pinart’s Kodiak collection. After 136 years, the masks returned to Alaska for nine months, visiting Kodiak and then Anchorage. An online presentation of that exhibition can be found here.

Trivia of the day: the crystal skull at the Musée du quai Branly once was owned by Pinart (info) !

A mystery figure from the Vérité Collection

mystery figure Africarium collection Vérité June 2006 lot 235 326x1024 A mystery figure from the Vérité Collection

Image courtesy of the Africarium collection.

Even after many hours of research, the above figure remains an enigma to me. It was once sold as Baule, but its extraordinary size (98 cm high) is very a-typical for Baule anthropomorphic statuary. Focusing on the hairdo, Attié has been suggested. Clearly this figure is very old, perhaps even older than we think. Such an eroded state is also not something one easily encounters in Ivory Coast sculpture. The biggest mystery might be the presence of the large cavity at the center of the back – see the pictures below. So if you have any suggestions about the origin of this figure, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

back mystery figure Africarium collection Vérité June 2006 lot 235 292x1024 A mystery figure from the Vérité Collection

Image courtesy of the Africarium collection.

mystery figure Africarium collection Vérité June 2006 lot 235 cavity 1016x1024 A mystery figure from the Vérité Collection

Image courtesy of the Africarium collection.

UPDATE: a reader was so kind to mail me this male Baule figure from the Herbert Baker collection, which, at 105 cm, is even taller. The back of the figure apparently is as eroded, though the face obviously is in a much better condition and has some kind of crown on top. Next to size, the elongated body and small hands are indeed very similar to the Vérité figure. But if our figure is indeed Baule, what about the cavity?

Herbert Baker Baule figure A mystery figure from the Vérité Collection

UPDATE 2: Several people have suggested Mbembe (looking at the arms, hair and surface)

Object of the day: A rediscovered Boa figure, collected between 1893-1898

Boa figure Congo Camille DHeygere 1024x717 Object of the day: A rediscovered Boa figure, collected between 1893 1898

Boa figure. Height: ca. 50 cm.

The above Boa figure was collected by Camille D’Heygere. D’Heygere was stationed in the Congo Free State between 1893 and 1898, first as a deputy prosecutor in Boma, later as a judge in New Antwerp. His collection was sold last week at a small auction in Brussels; all objects were heavily underestimated – which of course attracted a lot of attention. The above Boa figure was sold for € 61,000. Only a handful Boa figure are known, among which three by the same hand as this one. Two other objects with this same provenance were sold: a Mbole figure (which made € 68,000) and a Hungana pendant – sold for € 26,000. All three objects were never published before. The early provenance makes this Mbole figure possibly the first to arrive in the West.

Mbole Congo Camille DHeygere 1024x719 Object of the day: A rediscovered Boa figure, collected between 1893 1898

Mbole figure. Height: ca. 70 cm.

Hungana ivory pendant Congo Camille DHeygere 1024x606 Object of the day: A rediscovered Boa figure, collected between 1893 1898

Hungana pendant. Height: ca. 8 cm.

Object of the day: a 19th century Songye kifwebe mask

Vandevelde Songye kifwebe mask 19th century 1024x850 Object of the day: a 19th century Songye kifwebe mask

Currently on view at the Initiates exhibition at the Musée Dapper in Paris, the above Songye kifwebe mask was the first to arrive in Europe in the late 19th century. It was collected by Liévin Vandevelde (1850-1888), a Belgian colonial officer of the Congo Free State, who gave it to his sister in 1885. Stanley, who Vandevelde accompanied during one of his trips considered Vandevelde ‘his second self’. Vandevelde had assisted the German explorer Eduard Pechuël-Loesche on an earlier trip and would later die during his third voyage in Congo in 1888. In 1885, he collaborated with the government of Angola to eradicate witchcraft in the region. He never traveled in the Songye region and probably acquired the mask from a Portuguese. The Musée du quai Branly holds another famous Songye object collected by him, the incredible headrest illustrated below.

Songye headrest Lievin Vandevelde Quai Branly Object of the day: a 19th century Songye kifwebe mask

Image courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly (#73.1986.1.3).

19th century Kongo tourist art: the “Banana atelier”

Early Kongo Tourist Art Bassani 1024x408 19th century Kongo tourist art: the Banana atelier

Continuing on the theme of an earlier post about a Loango market stall with Kongo-derived art for tourists, a reader informed me about an interesting article by Ezio Bassani in African Arts (vol. 12, 1979: pp. 34-35). It discusses seven figures in the collection of the Museo Civici, Reggio Emilia. They belonged to a larger group of ethnographic objects assembled by the Italian explorer Giuseppe Corona in 1887 near the mouth of the Congo River. These objects, stored in Antwerp, were bought on the basis of photographs, and later declared unsatisfactory by their buyer, Luigi Pigorini, founder and director of the Museo Pigorini in Rome. Bassani unveiled a letter dated July 12, 1889, where Pigorini asked the Minister of Public Instruction to interrupt negotiations on the museum’s behalf and oblige the seller to either refund expenses or reduce the price that had been fixed for the acquisition. Pigorini stated the situation as follows:

Since there was no possibility of examining the collection before we agreed to buy it, when asked whether I considered it suitable to acquire it for the museum I direct, I answered in the affirmative, on the condition, of course, that we receive all the objects documented by the photographs presented by the Cav. Corona, and on condition that each object bear unequivocal signs of having been used by the natives from whom it originated, thus excluding the possibility that it [the collection] might consist of materials produced along the coast to be sold to those who hunt for curios … Of such objects, which the Cav. Corona had guaranteed the number given and the condition of having been used, only a few reached us, or the items appear utterly new.

Clearly, already in 1889, signs of ritual usage were considered an important element to consider an object authentic. The seven figures illustrated in the article (shown above) were most likely made by the same anonymous sculptor. Most of the figures appear to represent Europeans. Bassani rightfully concludes that this artist must have worked on order, creating sculptures for sale to foreign sailors and travelers. Even in the 1880s, the production of objects “to be sold to those who hunt for curios” was already flourishing along the African coast.

Figures in this easily recognizable style sometimes pop up at auction, for example recently at Zemanek-Münster here or at Neumeister here (all three illustrated below).

Early Kongo Tourist Art Bassani 2 19th century Kongo tourist art: the Banana atelier

Image courtesy of Neumeister (left figure) and Zemanek-Münster (middle and right figure).

Since J. F. G. Umlauff acquired another figure by this sculptor in Banana (illustrated below) , it’s likely this sculptor was based at this important port on the Kongo coast. The “Banana atelier” therefore seems an appropriate name to label his production.

Early Kongo Tourist Art Penn Museum 19th century Kongo tourist art: the Banana atelier

Image courtesy of the Penn Museum. (#AF1338)

To finish, a letter from Romolo Gessi, an Italian explorer who traveled in the southern Sudan in 1874-1880, quoted by Bassani, which illustrates the liveliness of the hunt for African “objects” on the part of explorers and merchants. In a letter, dated October 21, 1876, to a friend in Cairo, Gessi wrote:

You suggest that I should bring you curiosities. Is there a good market for them in Cairo? I made a collection but it is still incomplete. It is very difficult to find these objects. Everybody here wants to buy them, and the prices have been spoiled, especially by Englishmen who pay for this rubbish at its weight in gold. There are also many Greeks, Jews, etc. who buy up everything. I have sent orders to the chiefs of our military stations to find objects. There is a Russian doctor* here who for 20,000 francs, has already bought utensils, lances, arrows, etc. from the savages. You will easily understand that I cannot rival the prices offered by these people, who are ready to pay whatever price is demanded so as not to return to Europe without a collection. Therefore, let me know whether it is possible to sell these objects at a good price in Cairo because, believe me, it is difficult to find any.

* This was W. Yunker, the Russian explorer, whose collection is one of the oldest and important in the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology, Academy of Sciences, Leningrad.

Mystery object of the day: a Congolese double spoon

mystery congoles double spoon 1 1024x575 Mystery object of the day: a Congolese double spoon

The above object, possibly a ritual double spoon, reportedly comes from Congo. Where exactly is unknown to me. If you have already seen an object like this before, or have more information about its origin, please do get in touch! Thanks.

UPDATE: a reader has suggested Kuba as the origin of this double spoon. Personally, I have seen similar fixation twigs on Kuba cups, so he could be right.

UPDATE 2: I got a very interesting reply from Boris Kegel-Konietzko from Hamburg.

Dear Bruno, in 1955-1956 I traveled in the Mweka territory (Kasai) and neighboring areas to collect ethnographic objects. I had very good relations with the Kuba living there and was able to collect many boxes, cups, pipes, textiles and masks of various types. Many of the smaller utensils were provided with a a similar suspension device as the object shown here: liana fibers (lukodi) and a kind of flat-curved hook made from a palm rib. With this hook, objects could be attached to the hut wand, out of reach of mouses. This type of suspension is typically Kuba.

I don’t think this object is a spoon. Since one half would be spilled, when filling the other half. In my opinion this is a ceremonial dinner dish, which could have served as the double drinking cups for simultaneous use by two people during ceremonies.

That solves the mystery !

mystery congolese double spoon 2 1024x696 Mystery object of the day: a Congolese double spoon

Object of the day: a rediscovered Guro mask by the Master of Bouaflé

Guro mask by the Master of Bouaflé Object of the day: a rediscovered Guro mask by the Master of Bouaflé

Image courtesy of Tajan.

Subject of an upcoming single-object auction, the above Guro mask might so far be one of the most important rediscoveries of 2014. It was published only once, by Nancy Cunard, in Negro: Anthology (London, 1934, p. 663). This rare book recently was the subject of an exhibition at the quai Branly museum (info). Formerly in the collections of André Breton & Charles Ratton, this mask disappeared from the public eye since 1931. It’s reappearance on the market, after being ‘lost’ for more than 80 years, is thus quite an exciting event. You can read all about the mask in the catalogue here. The text by Bertrand Goy includes a very interesting paragraph (in French) on the Guro, the history of their discovery and this master carver.

As icing on the cake, this mask is visible on two photos taken in the apartment of André Breton, rue Fontaine, ca. 1924 and ca. 1927.

UPDATE: this mask was sold for € 1.375.000,- !

Bouafle mask ches Breton 1924 1024x657 Object of the day: a rediscovered Guro mask by the Master of Bouaflé

Buafle mask at Andre Breton 1927 Object of the day: a rediscovered Guro mask by the Master of Bouaflé

Crowned by a lovingly embracing couple, this mask can be attributed to the so-called ‘Master of Bouaflé’. The choice of this village for naming this talented sculptor happened quite arbitrary apparently. Bouaflé or Buafle is a town in the southeastern part of the Guro territory, close to the Yaure border. However, it’s not sure that this artist, active prior to 1920, ever lived there. Though many works of this ‘master’ are known, only one other mask of this specific type exists. Housed at the Yale University Art Gallery, it is however difficult to attribute this mask definitely to the same artist since it lacks the same refinement and is partly repainted.

 Object of the day: a rediscovered Guro mask by the Master of Bouaflé

Guro mask. Image courtesye of the Yale University Art Gallery.

UPDATE: now also with video..